Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/On the Medieval Ecclesiastical Architecture of Paris (Part 1)

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[first period.]

The churches of Paris, as they now stand, afford a good school for studying the medieval architecture of the central part of France, in its various epochs; although, taken in their several details, they cannot be compared to many edifices in the cities of the adjacent provinces. Thus, for the architecture of the thirteenth century, although there are some exquisite buildings of that date in the capital, yet there are none to compare to the cathedrals of Chartres or Rouen: and the specimens of the Flamboyant style are far superior at Rouen and Troyes to anything that Paris can produce. Nevertheless there is a complete series of buildings in Paris, from the time of the Roman emperor Julian, down to the days of Henri IV., in which all the various characteristics of medieval architecture may be studied, and from which a tolerably complete idea may be obtained of the main features of French ecclesiastical architecture in general.

Thus we have in this city the remains of the Palais des Thermes, once the residence of the Emperor Julian; the early portions of the abbey churches of St. Germain des Prés, and Montmartre, of the heavy Romanesque (Romane) period; and the later portions of the same buildings, with the earlier ones of Nôtre Dame, St. Julien le Pauvre, and St. Sévérin, for the style contemporary with our earliest pointed; and then the later parts of the cathedral, with the Sainte Chapelle, equivalent to Salisbury; a blank occurs in the period corresponding to our Decorated, unless those portions of Nôtre Dame which were erected during the fourteenth century, may be considered as filling up the vacuum; and indeed it may be remarked that the complete pointed style, such as is developed in England at the east end of Lincoln cathedral, and in France at Amiens, is that which prevailed there until after the expulsion of the English in the fifteenth century, and the rise of the Burgundian or Flamboyant style. This latter style is well illustrated in Paris, from its earliest to its latest epoch, (being the French equivalent of our Perpendicular,) in the churches of St. Sévérin, St. Gervais, St. Méry, St. Germain l'Auxerrois, &c. The style of the Rénaissance is most splendidly exemplified in the churches of St. Eustache, and St. Laurent, while there are numerous civil buildings from the Hôtel de Sens, and the Hôtel de Cluny, to the Tuileries, and the Hôtel de Ville, tending to complete the series for the portions extending from the end of the fifteenth to the middle of the seventeenth centuries.

If we were to extend our researches beyond the walls of Paris, so as to include the medieval edifices of a circle of ten miles radius, a series quite as interesting and nearly as rich as that of the capital itself, would be found; for it would comprise many valuable specimens of the Romanesque and early pointed styles, and would number among its treasures the abbey church of St. Denis, to which Paris has nothing to compare. Without, therefore, by any means intending to say that the student of French medieval architecture should limit his enquiries to Paris (he should, as a matter of necessity, visit Caen, Rouen, Chartres, Strasburg, Bourges, &c. and that rich mine of architectural wealth, the southern and south-western portion of France), we would encourage any antiquarian visitor of the French metropolis to examine its medieval buildings, for he need not fear to obtain therefrom much valuable architectural information. For the aid of any such person we subjoin a few notes on the principal ecclesiastical edifices of Paris now remaining[1].

St. Germain des Pres.—This abbatial church ranks as the earliest of any now extant in Paris, although there are portions of decorations belonging to the church of Montmartre which are of a still more remote epoch. The deed of foundation was dated A.D. 550, and the buildings of the church with the abbey were finished A.D. 557, in which year the dedication was made by St. Germanus himself. The church and abbey were pillaged by the Normans in A.D. 845, 857, 858, and burnt in A.D. 861, 885. Although the church was not entirely destroyed, a new one was founded by the Abbot Morard, A.D. 1014, and this was finally completed and dedicated by Pope Alexander III., A.D. 1163. Of the original church a portion probably remains under the western tower, where a massive arch, low and perfectly plain, supports the eastern wall of that part of the edifice. The nave is most probably of the date 1014, and the choir of the final date of 1163. Nearly all the abbatial buildings, except this church and the abbot's lodgings (of the time of Louis XIII.), with the well-known monastic prison called L'Abbaye, have perished. The church is cruciform, with a circular east end, and a single aisle running all round. At the east end is a circular-ended Lady chapel, and chapels join on all round the aisles of the choir. Immediately to the east of the transept, on the northern and southern sides of the edifice, stood two lofty towers ending in spires, which were unnecessarily taken down by an ignorant architect within the present century, and are now only on a level with the walls of the church; at the west end a single tower, capped with a spire, is still standing. Considerable damage was done to the nave and transepts in the seventeenth century by alterations intended for improvements; and during the Revolution the church was exposed to destruction by worse enemies than the Normans, for the republican Commune turned it into a depôt for saltpetre and other chemical products, and an accidental fire caused great damage to it. The edifice was, however, repaired after the Restoration, and is now about to undergo a farther and a more scientific restoration than it has ever yet received.

The nave is exceedingly plain, consisting of simple arcades with a clerestory above, and with round piers capped with rudely executed capitals. The ornaments on these capitals are generally allegorical representations of men and animals; but the original capitals are no longer in situ: they were so much dilapidated as to render the execution of new fac-similes indispensable, a task performed in a creditable manner. The ancient capitals are kept in the National Archæological Museum of the Palais des Thermes; all the arches are circular, perfectly plain. The choir possesses a triforium, with square-headed openings extending the width of each bay, but divided by a small shaft in the middle, and above are pointed equilateral windows. The capitals are here decorated in the most sumptuous variety of medieval taste, comprising every variety of beautifully executed foliage, birds, human heads amidst the leaves, and other devices, affording one of the richest specimens extant of the late Romane or rather earliest pointed style. Here the circular arch mixes freely with the pointed, and it is evidently a specimen of the transition from one system of curves to the other. The church was exceedingly rich in tombs of every description:—but few now remain,—and none of the medieval epochs. This is in many respects the most interesting church of Paris: and the most ample archæological information concerning it is to be found in Dom. Bouillard's History of the abbey, A.D. 1733.

Montmartre.—This church, although outside the municipal walls of Paris, has always been so intimately connected with the capital that it may be considered as part of it, and more especially now that the military lines have included the hill of Montmartre within their circuit. The precise date of the earliest portion of the existing edifice is not clearly ascertained. It has been built over the spot where St. Denis was said to have been martyred, and it is known that a conventual establishment, with probably a chapel on the site of the present edifice, existed there in the time of Louis le Gros. This monarch removed the monks to the church of St. Denis de la Chartre, and then founded a new convent for an abbess and sixty nuns in A.D. 1134. Pope Eugenius III, assisted by St. Bernard and Peter the Venerable, dedicated the new church in A.D. 1147, and this date tallies well with nearly all the portions of the church now standing: a few alterations in the vaulting of the nave were made in the fifteenth century. The abbatial buildings have nearly all been destroyed: the church itself consists of a nave and side aisles, and a small circular choir at the east end. The aisles also terminate in circular chapels. The oldest portions of the edifice are four Roman columns of fine marble, with capitals of the Debased style common to the Lower Empire, which were probably removed hither from a neighbouring temple of Mars that stood on the hill: two of these columns are at the west end of the church, and two at the entrance of the choir. On the capital of one at the west end, a cross has been cut. The nave possesses a triforium, until lately blocked up with human skulls and bones, and a mutilated clerestory above, the triforium and the capitals of the piers resembling closely those of St. Germain des Prés. The choir is of the purest early pointed style, but the capitals of the shafts in this and in the other parts of the building retain a character of an earlier period than that of their presumed execution. The whole of this edifice is to be thoroughly restored. Although its annals are sufficiently interesting in an ecclesiastical point of view, its monumental history seems always to have been rather poor.

St. Julien le Pauvre.—This small church stands within the enclosure of the Hôtel Dieu, and dates from the early part of the twelfth century, though the precise year of its dedication is not known. Gregory of Tours speaks of a basilica as standing on this spot, but no traces of any building of so early a date as the sixth century are now to be met with. It consists of a central and single side aisles, all terminating in circular apses, with a clerestory continued above all the arcades of the central aisle and apse. The arches of the main piers are circular, and the capitals are of the same style as those of Nôtre Dame and St. Germain des Prés; the clerestory windows are pointed, and of much wider proportions than were usual in England at that period. At the east end of the church is a holy well.

St. Martin des Champs.—Parts of the church of this immense monastic establishment,—particularly the side aisles and the eastern end,—are of the Romane style, and are probably of a date as early as the twelfth century; the major part of the edifice is, however, of the thirteenth, and the grand refectory, still standing, forms a chef-d'œuvre of the same century. It is known that a church, dedicated to St. Martin, stood here in the seventh century, but Henri I. rebuilt the whole, and Philip I. constituted it into a priory of Cluniac monks A.D. 1079. The church, now much degraded, is hard to be made out, from its being used as a magazine for the Ecole des Arts et Metiers, but the refectory has been appropriated as a school, and with its beautiful reading pulpit, and single row of slender shafts running down the middle of the apartment to support the vaulting, produces a most exquisite effect. The details are worked out with great care and delicacy.

Nôtre Dame.—The earlier parts of this building, including the lower portions of the western front, the piers of the nave, choir, and aisles, date from the end of the twelfth century; and, though they are on the very limits of the circular and pointed styles, or rather associated with the latter, entitle the cathedral to be considered one of the earliest buildings in the capital. The high Altar was consecrated A.D. 1182. No description of this well-known edifice is necessary: it may be observed, however, that the character of this early portion of the architecture is very good, rich, and massive, and that the ornamental parts are executed with great taste and skill. A considerable portion of the edifice, indeed all that part which most strikes the unprofessional eye, is of the thirteenth century, and no small portion, especially towards the eastern end, of the fourteenth, some even as late as the fifteenth. It was a building that advanced very slowly towards completion. The whole is going to be carefully restored by the French Government, and some injudicious alterations made during the last and present centuries will be removed.


  1. The damage done at the Revolution was immense, but it fell more on conventual than on parochial edifices. Some of the finest churches in the city were, however, then either destroyed or irreparably defaced.